Look at Me, by Jennifer Egan

Some years ago, when I lived in New England, my next-door neighbor decided to burn the brush he had cleared from his yard. Unfortunately, mixed in with that brush was poison ivy.

Now, I catch poison ivy if you simply tell me that your second cousin had it ten years ago, so I reacted strongly to this smoke. My face swelled to twice its size. It turned beet-red and lumpy, and my eyes were reduced to mere slits. I was lucky, I guess, that I just got a faceful of smoke and didn’t breathe it in; if I had gotten poison ivy in my throat, I would have ended up in the hospital on a ventilator.

As it was, I called my doctor and got her to call in a prescription for a strong antihistamine. Walking around the corner to the drugstore, however, was a more difficult experience altogether. People gave me a wide berth, their eyes flickering to my face and then quickly away again. Even the pharmacist, whom I’d come to know well through my children’s various ailments, looked over my shoulder rather than at my monstrous face.

“I’m still me!” I wanted to shout.

But was I? How much of who we are has to do with what we look like? I’m always intrigued by people whose appearance contradicts their personalities. Take Buster for instance, a huge, husky steelworker whose terrifying demeanor incited newcomers at the corner bar to pick fights with him in order to prove their mettle. But in fact Buster was the most gentle man imaginable and loathed fighting. Or Christine, who worked with me several years ago. A blandly beautiful young woman, with the blond hair, blue eyes, and clear complexion once commonly found in teen magazines. She looked like a ditzy blond but actually boasted a fierce intelligence that she refused to hide.

Egan’s excellent novel explores these issues around the intersection of appearance and identity. It opens with a fashion model who has been in a terrible auto accident. The resulting reconstructive surgery has left her looking beautiful but different, so unlike herself that even her friends and agent do not recognise her at first. She is also at an age where her bookings had already started falling off, even before the accident, and Egan adds to her examination of identity the dimension of celebrity and how that relects or influences our idea of ourselves.

There is much more to the book, other fascinating characters whose charisma waxes and wanes, plotlines that vary from teen-aged self-discovery to acts of terrorism. It is almost too much. In fact, it is too much for Egan to handle. She does an astonishing job of keeping all her balls in the air, making me think this one of the best books I’d read a long time. But the balls tumble down in chaos at the end of the book. I was so disappointed by the ending, which felt as though Egan simply got tired of writing and stopped, leaving many plot threads dangling. The only attempt at resolution, in an epilogue, had such a different tone that it seemed to have come from another book entirely.

Still, it is an excellent book and well worth reading. There is much to think about here. How and when we define ourselves, or allow others to define us. What consistency we can expect with our past selves. What effect our influence on others has, on them and on us. And how our appearance affects the construction of our identity. I certainly found my monstrously altered appearance prevented any interaction with others. If it had been more permanent, I wonder how my image of myself might have changed.

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